Return of the Flâneur, a silent observer:
"I walk through my blindness the way I wander down streets in Paris: unfettered and alive, alert to the raw material of the senses. I am a Flâneur. Come along with me. Just don't try to take my arm, unless I ask,"
The pinhole photographer has the innocuous air of a Flâneur who roams
the streets unnoticed, for her apparatus, does not look at all like a camera,
instead it is an unobtrusive cardboard box that has none of the fancy gadgetry
that new age cameras possess.
As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the Flâneur is a creation of Paris, a city of gaslights, cobbled streets and pavements that casts an ambiguous light on this double floor; the city becomes a mnemonic for the lonely walker. For the tourists it has a completely different narrative that is one of a visitor, trying to encapsulate and experience the city in half the time that a native of the city could. The tourist also has fresh eyes that bring new readings to older images, one that perhaps escapes the author or image maker who has lived there all their lives.
Mieko Tadokoro, a Japanese artist, born in 1952, is a tourist in Paris and she is also one of the rare masters of pinhole photography. Tadokoro does not work with conventional cameras, her pictures are made with the pinhole camera, an instrument that is not the recognisable modern camera, but a simple device made of a cardboard box whose only equipment is with a small hole through which light enters and a manual shutter that blocks the light, allowing the photographer to time the exposure.
Tadokoro's black-and-white images are a result of being kind of invisible and blending in, despite her racial difference, and her work has a quiet and meditative air that comes from not being 'seen' as a photographer who announces his/her presence with a camera and all its paraphernalia strapped onto their body. Beside the meditative and dream- like, almost melancholic quality that marks Tadokoro images, they are also fine studies of landscapes, buildings, spaces bereft of human presence and still life studies that are executed in a fascinating method that has been called lens-less or blind photography.
Pinhole photography is peculiar in that it does not allow the photographer a preview of the image that is being captured. The photographer simply places their instrument before the object to be captured and then exposes the film reel to the light cast on its surface for a calculated period of time-a science that gets perfected only with years of practice.
While the technical process behind this lens-less photography is not apparent to the viewer who only looks at the final product of the image, the process encodes the image with a certain spontaneous intuitive quality-an accidental beauty that cannot be calculated by a simple means of looking through a lens and composing the image. Tadokoro's images are filled with that quality of intuitiveness and her images, which may appear simple at first, are actually the product of a patient trial and error methodology that finally yields a handsome reward in the form of an image redolent with technical acumen and emotional charge.
The images that have been chosen for this suite comprise studies shot in Paris Japan and a few that do not reveal their location to the viewer.
In Paris it is not the Eiffel Tower that marks Tadokoro's entry point into the city but the Arc de Triomphe, viewed at an angle and reflected in perfectly still waters-not the head-on image that most photographers would go for. Additionally, the dark silhouettes of leafless trees and lampposts stand in sharp contrast to the shimmering white form of the gateway to Paris accentuating its brilliance while maintaining a meditative mood.
The other image that comes from Paris is the stunning geometry of the Café de L'Epoque shot with an amazing depth of field. The chequerboard pattern on the floor finds an echo with the grids of the sun roof, while a dance of reflected lights plays off the glass-fronted windows of the café. In contrast to the cheery mood evoked by the lights, the café appears to be completely deserted. Once more we are introduced to the patient Flâneur that resides in Tadokoro, who waits for the moment when the bustling beer drinkers have left and the café presents itself in all its melancholic glory resembling a memoir from a François Truffaut film on love, loss and longing.
On home ground we find that Tadokoro does not change her mood, instead she seeks out similar deserted spaces. Here her muse is a traditional Japanese shop with its wooden sliding doors and sloping tiled-roof, it stands set against a dark sky, pregnant with storm clouds in what appears to be a lonely stretch. The absence of human presence adds to its sense of abandonment as does the hand-pulled rickshaw that is parked outside the shop that bears all the signs of Japanese fastidiousness.
Another image of what looks like a diorama in a museum baffles the viewer. At first sight it appears like a regular photograph of an amusement park with its merry-go-round in the park and people dotting its lawns. It is only at closer inspection that it reveals itself as a diorama where everything is static and the people are painted figurines. The only clue that Tadokoro leaves the viewer is a ticket stub that announces the venue, Tobu World Square-Japan's amusement Park that has 45 miniature UNESCO-designated, World Cultural and Heritage Sites.
One can only guess that the brooding image of a reclining, sleeping form dramatically shot against the silhouette of a church speaks of the final repose that is death. Her classic study of apples on a satin cloth completes Tadokoro's journey through the black-and-white world of pinhole photography.
Tadokoro has held shows in Tokyo, at Fuji Photo Salon, Kodak Photo Salon and le Printemps Ginza. Despite these achievements she remains an unarmed photographer, a lonely mnemonic walker.
Destabilising the 'weapon of choice': why pinhole photography?
The camera has been an instrument coded with power since it bestows its user with not just the ability to observe, document and record images, but it confers its user with it an air of authority. This comes from the many years of history woven around the camera, one which moves from early scientific experimentation to that of it being an instrument used in the process of war documentation1. In today's context the camera is like an all-seeing eye that makes its subject aware of being documented, its user aware of the documentation and the product that finally emerges is highly a calculated and manipulated image processed by various instruments. A typical SLR camera is equipped with simpler devices like view finders, light meters and flashes and sophisticated shutter speeds that can document movement with a precision that is constantly upgraded with each new model of the camera and control the amount of light going in and out of the camera box with precision.
With the digital era other instruments for viewing and calibrating images were ushered in-from the digital back that allows the photographer instant access to the image seconds after it is taken to Photoshop that is a daylight dark room equipped with an array of tools that allow its user instants effects of controlling light, dodging and burning images and cropping them to a desired composition in post production.
In that sense the camera feeds in to our post-modern need for instant gratification and simultaneity-where an image is captured and published on social network sites instantaneously.
In contrast to all this high-technology driven processes of image production is the pinhole camera or "Camera Obscura" is, a light-tight box that is pierced with a hole a third of a millimeter. This optical device, several millenaries2 old, allows the user to have an infinite depth of field and makes appear in the photography images that are often imperceptible to the human eye. The interesting paradox in this situation is that since the pinhole camera is a lens-less device, much is left unseen to the image- maker who then relies largely on intuition while composing the image. The mystery behind discovering the image that has been burnt onto the film by light can only be discovered in the darkroom where the film is developed and printed, thus the whole processes is an intuitive one which involves experimentation and accidental beauty.
Georgina L Maddox
(Georgina is an art critic-curator who currently works as the senior assistant editor with the India Today Group in New Delhi.)
1. A Frenchman named Joseph Niepce (was born Joseph Niepce but is known as Nicéphore Niépce) developed the first fixed image in 1827 (or 1825) using a gel that hardened on a glass plate when exposed to light in eight-hour increments. However, it was Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre who simplified the process and reduced the exposure time to less than thirty minutes that made it adaptable for battlefield conditions in the future. It was used during the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s and became the first War ever to be photographed. This process, known as the Daguerreotype method, became popular in New York City, and by then, several studios had been setup. By the start of the Civil War in the late 1940s, a cheaper and more practical system of photographing was developed.
2. The first surviving mention of the principles behind the pinhole camera, a precursor to the camera Obscura, belongs to Mo-Ti (470 BC to 390 BC), a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Pinhole cameras were used primarily to map the movements of the sun and its science was known as Solargraphy. Later in the 10th-century Alhazen Ibn al-Haytham a scientist and Polymath from Basra, published the principles of pin-hole photography in the Book of Optics in 1021 AD. He improved on the camera after realizing that the smaller the pinhole, the sharper the image (though less light). He provides the first clear description for construction of a camera obscura (Lat. dark chamber).
Reference reading: The blind Flâneur, Walter Benjamin.